I had a meeting years ago with a senior leader at Willow who had been successfully leading one of our largest departments for a long period of time. She asked for the meeting because she said she was facing a leadership crisis and needed help. She was a very good leader, but the size and scope of her responsibilities had increased threefold in a short period of time, and she was caving under the perceived pressure she felt from all that change.
I listened intently as she described her issues. For twenty minutes straight, I listened. But then my patience wore thin. I stopped her mid-monologue and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but the conundrums you’ve noted in our conversation so far are all Leadership 101 issues. Yet you’re a 501- or 601-level leader. Let me ask you a question: What are the names of three leadership books you’ve read in the last twelve months?”
She couldn’t think of one.
“It’s confounding to me,” I continued, “that you could be entrusted with scores of staff members and hundreds of thousands of resource dollars, yet you feel no compulsion whatsoever to read books to improve your leadership. The brightest, godliest leaders on the planet have written fantastic content on the very same issues you’re wrestling with, and it’s only an Amazon-dot-com click away. One click!”
The conversation further confirmed what I have long believed: far too many leaders in high positions of responsibility neglect their need to read.
The older I get and the longer I lead, the wider my knowledge gap becomes and the more aware I am of all that I don’t know about leadership. But then there’s Romans 12:8, which says that I am to “lead diligently.” How am I supposed to lead diligently when there is so much left to learn?
Leaders have a responsibility before God to constantly get better, and one of the most reliable ways to do so is to read. Great leaders read frequently. They read voraciously. They read classics and new releases. They soak up lessons from the military, from academia, from politics, from nongovernmental organizations, and from church leaders who are leading well. They refuse to let themselves off the hook in this regard, because they know that all great leaders read.
When you read, you invite new information into your subconscious mind. You may spend ten full hours going cover to cover and at the end feel like you’re none the wiser. But then a day or a week later, you face a leadership dilemma that you are able to solve only because you read that book.
Just last month I was walking through an airport, about to board a three-hour flight home. It was the perfect amount of time to plow through the four sailing magazines I had tucked in my briefcase. “Perfect!” I thought just as I passed a bookstore. Feeling a pang of guilt, I thought about the weeklong vacation I’d just enjoyed with my family. I thought about the challenges that were facing me back at Willow. And I realized I owed my team that three-hour window of preparation so that I could lead as effectively as possible once I was home.
I stopped into the shop and picked up a business book on making wise decisions. It was so captivating that I underlined at least a third of it on my trip home. Not surprisingly, many of the dilemmas I faced that week required every ounce of new knowledge I had gleaned from that book. Just imagine if I had settled for sailing magazines!
I have little patience with leaders who get themselves into leadership binds and then confess that they haven’t read a leadership book in years. If you’re a serious-minded leader, you will read. You will read all you can. You will read when you feel like it, and you will read when you don’t. You will do whatever you have to do to increase your leadership input, because you know as well as I do that it will make you better.
Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.